Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron - "Me and the Devil" (the song remains the same)

I didn't know that much about Gil Scott-Heron; sure I knew some of his more famous spoken word stuff, like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" & "Whitey On The Moon", but I didn't realize he was a legitimate singer.

Herbert recently turned me on to GSH's 2010 LP "I'm New Here", which is a mix of songs and spoken word tracks. I'll review the LP later, but the center piece of the LP is GSH's version of the 1937 Robert Johnson classic "Me and the Devil Blues" (the title here is reduced to just "Me and the Devil"). Musically, instead of a standard blues arrangement, it is given the doom stomp treatment that reminds me of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down", albeit with more of a synth/electronic sound. Vocally, GSH's leathery voice compares favorably with Robert Johnson.

As you surely know, this is Johnson's second song dealing with Faustian themes, the other being "Cross Road Blues", which is generally associated with him selling his soul for his guitar proficiency (of course, this is a great theme for musicians; see also: the 1986 film "Crossroads", Paganini, Tartini, etc.)

There have been countless covers of Johnson's song... Two more notable versions are Eric Clapton's, from his 2004 LP "Me and Mr. Johnson" and the Cowboy Junkies from their 1986 debut LP "Whites Off Earth Now!!". I'm a big Cowboy Junkies fan (even though this is their first mention here), but I think Gil Scott-Heron might have done a better version of this song.

Gil Scott-Heron: "Me and the Devil" (the official video incorporates ~1:45 of GSH's "Your Soul and Mine" from "I'm New Here")

Robert Johnson: "Me and the Devil Blues"

Eric Clapton: "Me and the Devil Blues"

Cowboy Junkies: "Me and the Devil Blues"

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Air - "Cherry Blossom Girl" (LP Review)

I hadn't planned to review this, but it came up in my iTunes playlist today... I really like Air and I absolutely love Hope Sandoval, so the combination of the two can't go wrong, right? Well, that's pretty much true. "Cherry Blossom Girl" is a single from Air's 2004 LP "Talkie Walkie", one of the few Air LPs I don't have. But as much as I like Air, I bought this single because of their collaboration with Hope Sandoval.

The CD single released on Astralwerks has four versions of the "Cherry Blossom Girl": a "radio mix" by Air, a version with Hope Sandoval, a mix by Simian Mobile Disco, and a demo version by Air.

I'm not sure what differentiates the radio mix from the LP version, but it is a typically good song by Air: smooth, airy, non-offensive, pop electronica. The version with Hope Sandoval is different enough to be an entirely different song: all the electronics are stripped out and Hope turns in a typical quiet, dreamy, breathy performance.

The Simian Mobile Disco version is entirely skippable. I really like nearly all the acts on Wichita Recordings, but SMD is one of their biggest artists, along with Bloc Party, and I just haven't liked anything I've heard from either of them. As far as the demo version... it is interesting to compare it with the final version, but it is skippable too.

So, whether or not you need this single depends on if you are a Hope Sandoval completist. Obviously, I am.

Standout songs: radio mix by Air, Hope Sandoval version

Skip 'em songs: Simian Mobile Disco mix, "Fanny (cbg demo)"

Final score: 6/10. Good, but necessary only for Sandoval fans.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Foo Fighters - "Best of You" (the song remains the same)

In honor of tomorrow's quasi-national holiday, Super Bowl XLV...

"Best of You" was the first single of the Foo Fighter's highly successful 2005 LP "In Your Honor". The song is excellent: it has hooks, emotion, power -- everything you want in power pop. Dave Grohl has a great rock/punk voice: raspy, powerful, and with range.

I'm always amazed at the success and longevity of the Foo Fighters: I would not have believed you if you told me in 1994 after Kurt Cobain's death that Grohl, Nirvana's drummer (insert Spinal Tap reference here), would 1) switch to vocals & guitar, and 2) have a 15+ year run of commercial and critical success.

This story really begins with the Foos doing a cover of Prince's "Darling Nikki" on the B-side of their 2003 single "Have it All". In fact, the B-side was originally available on only foreign versions of the single (Australia & UK), but it gained some airplay in the US. The story goes that although Grohl did the cover because he was a Prince fan, Prince was not too happy that the Foos covered his song ("No! I don't like anyone covering my work. Write your own tunes!"), and Grohl later apologized and asked radio stations to stop playing their cover of "Darling Nikki".

Fast forward to 2007 and Super Bowl XLI and Prince is the halftime show. How does one of the most prolific and influential artists of our times fill a 12 minute slot? It begins with the marching band doing "We Will Rock You"; ok that's surely some kind of marching band law, so that doesn't really count. He then does two songs from the Purple Rain LP: "Let's Go Crazy" and "Baby I'm a Star". Then two covers (a medley, really) of "Proud Mary" and "All Along the Watchtower" -- covers, but so well known that they're standards.

We were watching the Super Bowl at Terry's house, and I still remember my total surprise when Prince segued from "two riders were approaching / and the wind began to howl" to "are you gone and onto someone new?" -- was Prince really singing "Best of You"?! That's a rather obscure, recent, and heavy song for a Super Bowl halftime performance. Given all the songs Prince could have chosen, using ~2:15 of a 12 minute slot to cover a Foo Fighters song was a pretty bold decision. From "Best of You", Prince closed the show with the song "Purple Rain".

Some people seemed to think Prince's cover was a dig at the Foos, but that just doesn't make sense: you don't skip over your own songs like "1999", "Little Red Corvette", "When Doves Cry", "I Would Die 4 U", etc. just to insult another artist. I prefer to think of it as a peace offering from Prince, realizing that he had been a bad sport about the whole "Darling Nikki" affair. For the record the Foo's were flattered, their reaction is covered in this story from mtv.com.

Is it too much to hope the Black Eyed Peas have a similar surprise in store? (edit: turns out it was too much to hope for -- I don't think it was the disaster that some claim, but it wasn't very good).

Foo Fighters: studio version, live version, live on Jools Holland, acoustic version

Prince: audio only version, full halftime show ("Best of You" begins at ~6:00).

"Darling Nikki" Bonus links:

Prince: studio version, "Purple Rain" movie version

Foo Fighters: studio version, live version